Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Championship Mentality of a Boston Sports Team

Before the Boston Bruins suit up and try to take down the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Finals Wednesday night, let's take a step back and survey the Boston sports landscape as a whole.

Specifically, I want to look at what makes a champion in Boston.This is not going to be a roster breakdown. I'm not going to come out with any groundbreaking statistical analysis proving that Kevin Youkilis's OPS was equivalent to Tedy Bruschi's forced  fumbles percentage (is that even a stat?) or something. 

I just want to discuss the general feeling that I get from a championship Boston team, and how we might have more than just one parade in our not-too-distant future.

I'll go in chronological order, starting with the greatest dynasty since the Targaryens, the Early-2000s Patriots

These days, the Patriots are known for one thing: offense. However you want to slice it, we're an offensive juggernaut: Brady to Gronk, Brady to Hernandez, Brady to Welker and Moss (RIP). We own the best prolonged aerial attack since, well, the Targaryens. 

But it wasn't always this way. 

Back when I was but a wee boy of 11, in the 2001-2002 season, the Patriots were a defense-first team. Belichick was known around the league as a defensive guru, and we allowed the 6th-fewest points in the league that season. 

We had stud defenders (a wholly different class of players than the "stars" who come with their own tents and peanut vendors) who were in their prime: Lawyer Milloy (28), Ty Law (27), Tedy Bruschi (28), and Willie McGinest (30). We also had a young talent by the name of Richard Seymour. 

We hit teams in the mouth from the opening whistle, and it took us all the way to perhaps the most unlikely championship in the history of the NFL, as a first-year quarterback named Tom Brady ran a picture-perfect two-minute drill to get the ball onto the foot of the the most clutch kicker of all time.  (Aside: listen to Pat Summerall's call of that kick. Has anyone ever discussed this? Dude sounds like he's announcing a high school JV first-quarter extra point two weeks after he watched his grandson get hit by a bus.)

We were outgained 427-267 in total yards. We also forced three turnovers that we turned into 17 of the 20 points we eventually needed to win. That was the Patriot Way. Don't screw up, execute when it counts, and make the other team fear your defense.

It worked for two of the next three years as well, and the Pats won the Super Bowl after the '03 and '04 season. 

But it couldn't be that way forever. Brady seemed to develop a fondness for the word "super" in the following years: going supernova in starpower, dating supermodels, and losing Super Bowls. My opinion? We traded our toughness for finesse. Less bludgeoning opponents to death Mike Tyson-style, and more trying to tiki-taka our way into the endzone, Xavi-style.

Needless to say, our Super Bowl record since trading in our Hulk hands defense for a pair of Kenny Wu's skates is 0-2.

Let's move on to a team that took care of the middle of the decade, the 2004 and 2007 Red Sox.

Now, I'm not going to claim that the 2004 Team of Destiny was anything other than pure magic. But, like most magic, it needed the right circumstances to be able to occur. Much like Daenerys Targaryen (can't seem to leave them alone) needed a funeral pyre for her husband in order for her dragon eggs to hatch, those '04 Sox had the scrappiest, weirdest, and most importantly, loosest bunch of dirtbags in the league, and they were perfectly suited to pull off the madness that they needed.

Baseball is a different animal than football, but one constant remains if you want to taste success: defense. Of course, in baseball, defense starts with pitching.

And pitching starts with the starters. Some quick stats. Curt Schilling. 21-6, 3.26 ERA. A truly dominant year. Somehow Johan Santana won the Cy Young that year by winning one less game, and having an ERA about 6 points lower. Regardless, Schill was a horse.

So was Pedro Martinez: 16-9, 3.9 ERA. Decent, but not great, by his standards. More important? 217 innings pitched. Like Todd McShay said, the best ability is availability. Pedro had a productive, healthy year, not taxing his bullpen.

We all know what happened in October. David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, and Johnny Damon were our studs (though Manny turned into a "star" and has since paid the price), and our lineup was rounded out with the choicest selections of scrappy goodness this side of a Vietnamese cockfight. Just listen to this ALCS Game 7 lineup:
Mark Bellhorn (strikeout king and playoff stud)
Jason Varitek (Captain)
Trot Nixon (body is 70% water, 30% warning track dirt)
Kevin Millar (idiot, in more ways than 1)
Bill Mueller (unlikely batting champ)
Orlando Cabrera (classic Sox defensive shortstop)

This team simply outworked other teams. They ground out at-bats, wore down opponents with great starting pitching, and played loose and fun at the same time. A hard combination to beat.

The 2007 team was kind of the same, but substitute Josh Beckett (20-7, 3.27) for Schilling and Tim Wakefield (17-12, 4.76, 190 IP) for Pedro. Also, remember Daisuke Matsuzaka? 2007 was his first year in the MLB, and the gyroball fooled a few people, to the tune of 15-12, 4.40, 206 IP.

On offense, it was just a perfect storm. Pedroia and Ellsbury were up-and-coming stars. Ortiz and Mike Lowell (World Series MVP) finished 4-5 in the regular season MVP voting. Tek was Tek, Youk was Youk, and Manny was Manny.

But overall, we had that feel to our team. It just seemed that all throughout the lineup, even down to ole cereal bowl Coco Crisp, we had people who could pop off for a timely hit. We weren't quite the scrappy, unkempt bunch that pulled off a smash-and-grab title in 2004, but there was something down-to-earth and endearing about the '07 Sox. Manny hid in the Monster, for God's sake.

Which takes us to our third entrant in the Boston sports decade of champions, the 2008 Boston Celtics.

Now, although I have played basketball since I learned to walk, I must say that I despise the NBA. Not for some unusual reason, either, but for all the normal ones: too much one-on-one, not enough defense, nobody tries until the playoffs, etc.

However, I loved that 2008 team. Of all the squads here, that team may have had the most "scrap-swagger," a term I just made up. Scrap-swagger basically means that you know you're not a superstar, but you're gonna play and act like one, and say a big eff you to everyone who wants to put you on SportsCenter as the "nobody" who made big plays.

Of course, the NBA is all about swagger, so it's no surprise that the C's had scrap-swagger in spades. To go along with the first true Big 3 since the days of Larry Legend, we had such scrappy studs as Glen (Big Baby) Davis, Eddie House, Kendrick Perkins, and, of course, Brian (Scals) Scalabrine.

Because the Big 3 of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett was assembled late in everyone's career, when they were all trusted (and wily) vets, and since Scals looked like your local roofer, and due to the fact that most of our bench guys (Powe, Posey, and PJ Brown) could have been bouncing outside Tequila Rain and no one would have known them, this team felt like an underdog, good-guy team despite its .805 regular season winning percentage.

Pierce was our leading scorer, but he only averaged a shade over 19 a game. Ray Allen led the team in minutes, sprinting around the court draining threes and (usually) covering the other team's best player. Perk led the team in shooting percentage, mainly because he never took a shot from outside six feet. I could write another whole post on Perk, and what he meant to this team, but to keep it short (even though it's already INSANELY long), let's just say this. Letting Kendrick Perkins go did to the Celtics what changing from a defense-first team to an offense-first team did to the Patriots.

Cumulative championships for those teams after these changes? Zero.

And we've come to our last squad, and one that has the chance to put another banner into the rafters of the TD Garden: the 2011 Boston Bruins. 

First of all, the current B's squad has 17 holdovers from that championship club, which bodes extremely well for our chances in the Finals. It also means that I'm pretty sure we're still in the middle of one of these runs that I'm talking about.

The 2011 Bruins team was so easy to like, it was scary. They were like a combination of every great family member you've ever had. Seguin was your adorable little brother, who the entire family can't get enough of. Recchi was your crazy drunk uncle with more stories than DUIs, but not by many. (Granted, I know Rex wasn't like this in real life, but it was fun to think of him like that, and he played like the wiliest of veterans, giving him that aura. Plus, c'mon now.) Tim Thomas was the dad who didn't talk much at family parties, but just kind of sat in the corner with his beer and made everyone feel a little more comfortable. I could go on.

We weren't the most skilled team that year, but rarely in the NHL does the most skilled team win the title. Look at the Penguins this year. Timmy had a run that few goalkeepers have ever duplicated (don't look now, but Tuukk is duplicating it pretty damn well). We got huge goals when we needed them and, much like the early Patriots, we punished teams. In that Stanley Cup Finals, the Canucks were the Rams, we were the Patriots, and the Sedin twins were Isaac Bruce and Torrey Holt: small, skilled offensive weapons who were neutralized because they were afraid to get their heads taken off.

This is what every Boston sports team, except perhaps the current Bruins and Red Sox, is missing in some way: the desire to stomp on an opponent defensively, the willpower to ensure that that opponent knows they are going to lose, and most importantly, the blue-collar, lunchpail-type mentality that defines this town.

I know it's cliche, but it's true. We're a city of underdogs. We're not the biggest, brightest, fastest, or newest. But we pride ourselves on working the hardest. That's what champions do, and that's what we want to see in the Boston teams that win for us.

It's time for the Bruins to show that they are true Boston champions. 

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